Ad Noctum: Chapter 6
Both his kidnapper and his cat were still sleeping. That was nice. For them.
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Violence. Injuries. Panic. Drug use. Discussion of torture. Death wishes. Discussion of suicide. Purposefully insensitive discussion of mental health issues. Indirect reference to sexual assault. Boundary problems. Interpersonal manipulation.
Additional notes: None.
Telford had been true to his word and had managed to stay awake for a good six hours before he’d slipped into the darkness of the sleeping quarters and subtly shaken Volker awake with a short, “Your watch.”
Before Volker was alert enough to respond, Telford had slipped a torn piece of notebook paper into his hand before climbing into the top berth with something less than his usual grace.
Volker forced himself to his feet, fighting the mental drudge of an exhausted, coffee-less, morning-less ‘morning’.
“He okay?” Volker asked.
“Yeah,” Telford replied indistinctly, from where he was lying, face down on the bed.
Of course, it had been a useless question, because he couldn’t interpret Telford’s answer—not knowing there was a surveillance device in the room they currently occupied.
Volker staggered into the hallway, feeling completely disgusting after going two days without a shower, not to mention sleeping in his clothes, which weren’t even his, and hopefully weren’t going to give him any diseases just from wearing them.
Maybe he could take a shower today.
Hopefully that would be allowed.
He unfolded the scrap of notebook paper in his hand.
Go to the bridge and try to look like you have some idea of what’s happening on the consoles. Stay there for a few minutes, then go sit with Rush. When he wakes up, remind him about the surveillance devices. Don’t let him do anything stupid.
He spent a few minutes in the bathroom, brushing his teeth and splashing water on his face in an attempt to get rid of the mental fog resulting from sleep deprivation and caffeine withdrawal. He considered taking a shower, but ultimately decided that the search he would have to make for a towel, followed by the process of figuring out how to use an alien shower, could take a long time.
Telford obviously didn’t want Rush waking up alone.
Fine. No shower. Yet.
He squared his shoulders, making an effort to look a bit more put together and confident than he otherwise felt, and walked onto the bridge. He set one hand casually on the back of a chair, and let his eyes scan the monitors, trying to pretend he was back in his lab, watching the data feed from the radio array. He tried to think about alignment and integrity and transfer rates, and hoped some measure of competence came through.
When he had examined each of the four displays in the room, he turned and walked back off the bridge. He hit the door controls for the transport room and stepped inside.
Both his kidnapper and his cat were still sleeping.
That was nice.
He dropped into a seated position, pulled his knees up to his chest, and did his best to avoid being crushed beneath the hopelessness of his own situation. He was trapped on an alien ship, pretending to be something he wasn’t, not able to so much as reliably read a darn console. Furthermore, he’d been demoted from his position as an independent scientific investigator—a tenured professor of astrophysics at Caltech—to, like, the Space Pirate Lab Manager of an eccentric egomaniac.
He rested his forehead against his knees.
He had a lot of complicated feelings about Rush that could mostly be summed up as falling into the categories of anger and pity.
Telford, on the other hand, seemed like a straightforward, reasonable guy, except for the times when he was completely terrifying.
God. He didn’t trust either of them. He didn’t know if they trusted each other. Or themselves, for that matter. He didn’t know what they were doing or what they wanted or if they wanted the same thing or different things. He didn’t know if one or both of them had been brainwashed. He didn’t know anything.
He was going to die.
He tried to keep his breathing calm and measured. Tried to focus on the point where his forehead dug painfully into his knees.
Something that he didn’t know was going to kill him.
Volker was sure of that. He was sure.
He was going to have to try and do something about this. He was going to have to try and save himself in some way. He just didn’t know how, because he didn’t know anything. Not anything.
Logical. Be logical.
Thinking clearly under stress had always been a struggle for him.
It seemed like he had two choices. He could assume that Telford and Rush hadn’t been serious about the whole threat-to-his-graduate-students thing and he could try to escape this ship and the Lucian Alliance and make his way to some planet—
Seriously? ‘Some planet?’ This was his life now?
So he could make his way to some planet, and then try to get by wherever he found himself, or, he could stay with Rush and Telford, try to survive this situation, and possibly, possibly make it back to Earth if he were lucky and smart.
He really didn’t want to risk the safety of his graduate students just to go on the run so he could reinvent himself as a psychotropic corn farmer, or whatever, but neither did he want to stay under the watchful eye of Lucian Alliance. If he stayed, he’d probably get tortured at some point, as that seemed to be kind of a standard thing that they did. He pictured the whole torture thing as—not going very well for him.
Nope. Torture and Dale Volker weren’t going to mix well.
He sighed, thinking of Nupur and Brian and Katie. Fine.
He’d stay. It made sense, and had kind of always been his plan, but he felt better now that he’d laid it out and made a fake decision about it. So, now, he needed a way to not die. Maybe, like, multiple ways to not die. He decided to start making a mental list.
WAYS TO NOT DIE
- Learn Goa’uld.
- Learn about Lucian Alliance customs, body language, and history.
- Get in shape.
- Learn to fight?
- Learn to fly a space ship??
It sounded pretty juvenile laid out like that, and it also brought to mind Luke Skywalker’s training montage from The Empire Strikes Back, but, the bottom line was that all of these things were things he could do.
At least it would be better than just sitting, frozen, in this tomb of a ship, waiting to be killed by something outside his control.
He glanced at Rush again. The mathematician hadn’t so much as twitched the entire time Volker had been sitting next to him, staving off a panic attack. It didn’t look like he’d be waking up any time soon. He wondered how much of that was exhaustion and how much was from the muscle relaxant Telford had given him.
Satisfied that Rush would not be waking up in the next three minutes, Volker crossed over to the work room. He began to look through the books that were scattered around the place. After a few minutes of searching, he found a cheap paperback that looked promising: Practical Goa’uld for the SGC Science Professional by Dr. Daniel Jackson.
This Dr. Jackson guy was everywhere.
He picked it up, along with one of Rush’s small notebooks and walked back to the transporter room. Oh wait. The transport room. “Transport,” he whispered. “Transport, transport, transport.”
He sat down on the floor next to Rush and began to scan the table of contents.
Chapter One—The Goa’uld Alphabet and Basic Grammar Rules. Chapter Two—Words That Will Save Your Life. Chapter Three—Phrases That Will Save Your Life. Chapter Four—Declensions, Conjugations, Adjectives. Chapter Five—Navigating the Starship Console: A Linguistic Perspective. Chapter Six—Numbers. Chapter Seven—Protocol and Vocabulary Regarding Imprisonment and Hostage Scenarios. Chapter Eight—Directions. Chapter Nine—So You’re About to Be Made A Host. Chapter Ten—Bargaining.
And it went on like that. Well, it least seemed like it would be useful. He flipped to the first page and set about committing the alphabet to memory, testing himself by recopying it over and over in tiny, careful script into one of Rush’s notebooks. He spent maybe an hour working with it before he moved on to reading the grammar rules. He tried to make sense of them as best he could, but, really, he was focused on starting the “Words That Will Save Your Life,” chapter, as that one seemed most relevant to his current interests.
He scanned down the list, covering the English translations with one hand, trying to read the word in Goa’uld with using the appropriate pronunciation and then recall its definition.
“Kree,” he whispered, then looked up at the ceiling. “Attend.” How this was supposed to save his life, he didn’t know. Maybe it it was a very common word? Maybe the Goa’uld were attending to things a lot? Ah, there was a footnote. Volker ran his finger down the page. While “attend” is the best equivalent English translation for this word, as a choice, it errs on the formal side. Another acceptable translation of this word would be “hey.” As in, “Hey, I see you’re trespassing on this vessel, be prepared to die a needlessly painful death.”
“Great,” Volker whispered dryly, and then went back to his list.
“Arik,” he whispered. He looked up at the ceiling. “I will not surrender.” He looked back down, checking his work. Yup. Good.
“Kek,” he murmured. “I surrender. Also weakness.”
“Nok,” he bit his lip. “Stop?” he moved his hand to check himself. “Yup. Great.”
“Tal,” he whispered. He shut his eyes, trying to visualize the word.
“Death,” Rush murmured. “But also, oddly, ‘power consumption.’ I suppose I can see the connection.”
Volker’s eyes flew open. His hand came to his chest as he tried to calm his unbearably tight nerves. He took a deep breath. “Hi,” he said. “Sorry if I woke you.”
Rush gave him a listless looking flip of his hand before pushing himself up, dislodging Mendelssohn in a slide of irritated cat. Mendelssohn clawed at his jacket cuff.
“Oh what.” Rush glared at the cat.
“How are you feeling?” Volker asked.
“Fucked,” Rush replied, staring into space, reaching absently into his leather jacket, and pulling out his glasses.
There was an awkward silence, during which Volker tried not to look horrified.
Rush looked over at him, settling his glasses into place. Every time he thought he had seen the maximum amount of disdain that one person could convey in a single expression, Rush seemed to take it up another level.
“Metaphorically fucked,” Rush said in one slow, derisive pull.
“Well—hey. I mean—you were—um? I was just concerned that—”
“Not unreasonable. But stop talking.”
Rush pulled his feet underneath him, clearly in preparation for standing in the relatively near future.
“Hey, so, David wanted me to remind you that—”
“Oh, on a first name basis with him now, are you?” Rush asked dryly.
“Well, no—er, I mean, kind of? He calls me Dale, so—”
“Endlessly fuckin’ fascinatin’ as I find this, Dale,” Rush said, his speech slightly slurred, “I regret that I cannot stay in this fucking room for one more fucking second, so I will see you later. Enjoy the fucking intellectual fruits of Dr. Daniel fucking Jackson, triple PhD.”
Rush pushed himself to his feet in what was a fluid and vaguely heroic display of uncoordinated resolve that ended up with the mathematician back on the floor, in something that looked a bit like a sprinter’s crouch.
“Yeah,” Volker said, absently reaching out to lay a hand on Mendelssohn’s back. “Muscle relaxant still working, I guess.”
“Fuck. I’ll—” Rush shook his head. “Muscle relaxant? What the fuck.”
“You were, ah—not looking good,” Volker said, in Telford’s defense.
Rush shot him a glare.
“So, yeah, David wanted me to remind you that there are surveillance devices on the bridge and in the sleeping quarters.”
“Yes,” Rush said breathily, clearly about to attempt to get to his feet again. “I know.”
“Okay,” Volker said. “Great. Also, maybe you should consider just—you know, taking it easy?”
“No,” Rush said evenly. “No, I will not be considering that.”
This time, Rush managed to make it to his feet and Volker followed him toward the door, wondering if this was the kind of thing he was supposed to be preventing?
Rush made his way into the bathroom and downed several glasses of water then stood, with his hands braced against the sink.
“Do you need—”
“Well, what are you—”
Rush shut his eyes, either thinking about something or trying not to pass out, Volker really wasn’t sure which. The guy looked stressed. He also looked more than a little worse for wear. Like maybe he should be spending the day in bed with a book and a cat. Before Volker could suggest this, the man turned and brushed past him, heading out into the hallway.
“Rush,” Volker said, following him to the work room.
Rush said nothing until the door had swished shut behind them. “We have, Volker, a potentially fantastic opportunity.” He crossed the room to open a laptop.
“What, to read Telford’s email?” Volker hissed.
“No,” Rush said, looking up at him with a faint smile, “but I like your attitude.”
Volker rolled his eyes, but came to stand shoulder to shoulder with Rush, examining what appeared to be a schematic of the ship, with three red dots pulsing ominously. One on the bridge, one in the sleeping quarters, and one, presumably Volker’s silver sphere, in the cargo bay.
“The surveillance devices?” Volker asked.
“Mmm hmm,” Rush replied absently, zooming in on the blueprints of the sleeping quarters, centering one of the dots in the middle of the screen. It appeared to be affixed to a wall.
“I think,” Rush murmured, “that this one is likely connected to the interior of the grating that covers the air circulator.”
“Um, and that’s useful how?” Volker asked.
“Oh,” Rush said, smiling faintly as he turned toward the door. “You’ll see.”
Volker followed him with a feeling of trepidation. “Rush,” he hissed. “Rush, what are you going to do.”
“Sometimes these things are best left—undiscussed,” Rush replied airily, staggering slightly and then catching himself against the wall as he approached the door.
“I don’t care.”
“I. Don’t. Care.”
“What if we just look at the rasterized map—it’s done by now, and maybe we can find one of these naquadria planets. You know?” Volker found himself whispering furiously as he realized that Rush seemed to be walking straight towards the sleeping quarters. “Rush do not go in there—just don’t—”
“Stay here,” Rush said, shooting him a look that seemed to be an equal mixture of arrogance and menace.
“No,” Volker hissed. “Rush—“
Rush pressed the door controls and Volker followed him as far as the doorway, hovering there, hoping he’d be invisible to the surveillance device that was lodged behind a grate in the bulkhead that separated the room from the central corridor.
Rush walked straight into the room, braced one foot against the lower bunk, and hauled Telford straight out of the top berth.
They crashed together to the floor.
Volker stared at what had just happened in utter astonishment.
So—yep, this was probably what Telford had meant when he had said, “Don’t let him do anything stupid.”
“What the fuck,” Telford shouted, half-sitting, clearly disoriented.
Rush hit him, his fist driving into Telford’s cheekbone.
Volker took a half-step forward.
“Do not ever,” Rush shouted, his voice ragged, his expression enraged, “do that again.”
Telford shifted forward, plowing into Rush without even fully coming to his feet, tackling him hard and shoving him into the opposite wall.
Volker edged forward another half-step. He’d give Rush twenty seconds to demonstrate that he had some kind of plan before he went in there and risked any further injury to his still-healing shoulder.
Rush elbowed Telford in the face and managed to get to his feet, twisting as he did so, his fingers curling into the grating on the wall. When Telford dragged him back down to the floor, the grating came with him.
That counted as a plan, Volker supposed.
“Do what again, you god damned—” he broke off to duck as Rush sloppily swung the grating at his head. The wrought metal crashed into the wall with a low and hollow tone. Telford’s eyes flicked to the grating, then he locked gazes with Rush.
“What do you think?” Rush snarled. “You can’t fucking drug me and expect—” he broke off as Telford flipped their positions.
His fingers closed around the mathematician’s wrist, Telford slammed Rush’s hand straight into the floor. The grating impacted again with another hollow tone.
Rush did not let it go.
“You little—” Telford slammed Rush’s wrist into the floor for a second time, the grating echoing against the metal paneling. “Fucking—” again the grate hit the floor. “Sociopath.”
The fourth time proved to be the charm, and the grating broke with a sickening crack. Something that had been affixed to its back shattered into glittering fragments of gold and dull, matte metal.
Telford dropped the pieces of the grate on the floor with asynchronous clangs and then looked down at Rush, who was still pinned beneath him.
Rush raised his eyebrows, evidently pleased with himself.
“You are a little fucking sociopath, you know,” Telford said quietly, looking at the remains of the surveillance device.
“You’re welcome,” Rush said lazily.
Telford pursed his lips and exhaled shortly.
“You look fatigued, David," Rush said, exuding faux solicitousness. Why don’t you take a nap?”
Telford ignored him, and looked up to fix Volker with an exhausted glare. “You’re doing a terrible job,” he said. “Next time, use handcuffs.”
“Yeah, okay. You know what, you guys? I’m taking a shower.” Volker turned on his heel and headed toward the bathroom without a backward glance.
The remainder of the morning and early afternoon passed in a haze of Goa’uld memorization. Volker was left mostly to his own devices, as Telford was catching up on sleep. Rush had disappeared behind his favorite door—the one that probably lead to the engines.
Honestly, it was a relief to have a few hours to himself.
Every so often he went to check on the monitors on the bridge, just to show up on candid camera. By the early afternoon he’d gotten to Chapter Five in Dr. Jackson’s book, so the displays with their triangles and their hieroglyphics were starting to make more sense. It was hard to restrain himself when it came to examining the consoles, but he did his best to seem uninterested. Like he knew exactly what they said. Like he’d known his whole life.
Telford emerged just about the time Volker had forced himself about halfway through Chapter 6 of Jackson’s manual. The other man stood, hovering in the doorway, one hand on the doorframe as he surveyed the work room.
“Hey,” Volker said quietly.
Telford gave him a short nod and crossed the room, pulling a silver-wrapped Lucian Alliance meal out of one of the crates along the wall. He sat down at the table next to Volker and opened the packaging with a quiet efficiency.
“Where’s Rush?” he asked.
“Down by the engines, I think,” Volker said. “I’m not sure what he’s doing.”
They sat in silence. Telford ate something that looked like beef jerky. Volker silently quizzed himself on Goa’uld numbering conventions.
“How tall are you?” Telford asked.
“What?” Volker asked, surprised by the non sequitur.
“How tall are you?” Telford repeated.
“Um, five foot eleven, or so,” Volker said. “Why?”
“You’re going to need to try on my one of my uniforms.”
“Your Air Force uniform?”
“Yes,” Telford said shortly, starting in on his Space Pirate trail mix.
“Why?” Volker asked.
“It is, occasionally, useful to Kiva to have certain—favors—done for her by personnel who are not identifiable as members of the Lucian Alliance.”
“We do something for her and the Air Force takes the blame?”
“And they’re okay with this? The Air Force, I mean?”
“More or less,” Telford said, looking down at his hands as he toyed with a bit of silver packaging. “They understand the nature of a deep cover assignment may come with some unavoidable—collateral damage.”
“Is that what I am?” Volker asked quietly. “Collateral damage?”
“Not yet,” Telford said, the line of his gaze sliding toward the linear streaks of the stars that blurred past as they traveled within hyperspace. “Not yet.”
“So what is it that we’re supposed to be doing?” Volker asked.
“We’re making a hit on a tactical asset of the Second House of the LA.”
“What kind of tactical asset?”
“A facility that’s manufacturing modified versions of X-302s—basically a Tau’ri-designed fighter-jet that’s capable of functioning in both atmosphere and vacuum. The plans were stolen from Earth and passed to the LA, somehow. Having a fleet of X-302s would give the Second House a definite edge when it comes to some of the inter-House infighting.” Telford sighed. “Anyway, it doesn’t hurt to stay on Kiva’s good side.”
“I didn’t realize we were on her good side.”
“For now,” Telford said grimly, “I think we are. And I think we might be able to stay there, presuming that Rush,” he paused, folding the silver packaging neatly, “doesn’t fuck us over on a whim.”
“Do you think he got—” Volker trailed off, the words dying as Telford turned to give him an intent stare. “Well. You know. Brainwashed?”
“There would be,” Telford murmured, “almost no way for us to tell. He’d probably figure it out before we did. Don’t think he’d take it to it very well.”
“Yeah,” Volker said dully.
“But, for the little that it’s worth, I’d say no. He hasn’t been brainwashed.”
“Because,” Telford whispered. “He hasn’t done what they want yet.”
“And when he does?”
“You don’t destroy a person who’s unlocked one of the greatest secrets in the history of intelligent life.”
“Are you sure they know that?”
“Yeah,” Telford said. “They know. Of course they know.” He got up from the table and moved to stand next to the math-covered window, staring at the stars or the symbols.
“So what is it, exactly?” Volker asked quietly. “This secret that he’s supposed to be unlocking?”
“He hasn’t told you?” Telford asked, twisting to fix Volker with a dark, intent look.
“Um—no. I mean, the only thing we’ve really talked about is finding this Naquadria planet.”
Telford stared at him, searching Volker’s face, then turned back to the window that was still covered with Rush’s fluid script.
“Is that a big deal?” Volker asked quietly, getting to his feet. “I mean, he doesn’t seem like the most communicative guy—maybe he just hasn’t gotten around to telling me about the big picture. There was kind of a ‘find a planet or die’ mentality around here yesterday.” Absently, he reached up to rub gently at his knife wound, trying to ease the itch of slow-knitting skin.
Telford said nothing. He didn’t turn around.
Volker walked over to stand next to him.
“What—” Volker began. He cleared his throat. “What is he trying to do?”
“He’s trying to unlock the nine-chevron address.”
“The nine-chevron address?” Volker echoed. He tried to think back to the training videos and remember how many chevrons it usually took to dial the stargate. Seven. He was pretty sure it was seven.
“There’s only one,” Telford whispered, backlit by streaking starlight. “No one knows where it goes or how to get the chevrons to lock.”
“And this is what he’s working on?” Volker said.
“Yes,” Telford said darkly. “What he supposedly needs your help with.”
“You think he’s lying about that?” Volker asked.
“I don’t know. I have no idea. He wanted you for some reason though,” he murmured ominously. “That much, I don’t doubt.”
The tone of Telford’s voice and the set of his shoulders as he had looked out at the streaming stars stayed with Volker for the rest of the day.
Fourteen hours later, Volker stood in the transport room, reviewing Chapter Three of Dr. Jackson’s book. He tried to focus on the phrases and pronunciation and not on how uncomfortable and self-conscious he felt in Telford’s jacket and pants, which were just—not quite right for his build.
“Hal mek,” he murmured. “Hold your fire.”
The door swished open and Rush strode in, an assault rifle balanced on his shoulder. The overall aesthetic was fairly impressive, but damaged by the fact that he, too, was wearing a uniform that didn’t fit him. Either Rush or Telford had managed to pin the sleeves and pants in such a way that it looked passable, but it was hard to get around the fact that Telford had probably something like a good six inches on Rush.
“How are you feeling?” Volker asked.
“Ona rak ja’do,” Rush sighed, and, while the words were dry, there was an undertone of regret there.
“I’m only on Chapter Six.”
Rush swiped the book out of his hand with a lift of his eyebrows
“Hey, um, gal al’quel.”
“Mmm, not bad,” Rush said absently, ignoring his request to return the book as he flipped through the manual. “Don’t separate the conjunction. It makes you sound like you’ve no idea what you’re doing.”
“Well I don’t. Have any idea what I’m doing. In any arena.”
“Do you not understand that it’s a uniformly bad idea to advertise that?” Rush hissed at him.
“Your uniform is a bad idea.”
Rush smirked at him and tossed the book back in a curving arc. “I’m aware. But these things,” he paused, fingering the material of his collar, “aren’t easily obtainable. For obvious reasons.”
“Yeah,” Volker said. “Wouldn’t want anyone masquerading as SGC personnel.”
The door swished open, revealing Telford, who looked maddeningly crisp and professional in his own perfectly fitting uniform.
“Indeed not,” Rush said, eyeing Telford. “It’s bad for the wholesome and trustworthy image they unceasingly cultivate as they traipse through the galaxy in a hyper-technological haze of modern manifest destiny.”
“My ears are burning,” Telford said wryly. “But I do not traipse.”
“I love it when you reassure me of your self-awareness,” Rush said silkily. “Because I so often have doubts.”
Telford rolled his eyes. “And on that note—“
“Why don’t I have a rifle?” Volker broke in.
“Do you know how to properly handle an assault rifle?” Telford asked, moving to stand within the circular cutout on the floor.
“Do you want to shoot anyone?”
“Would you shoot anyone?”
“Maybe in self defense?”
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Telford said. “Anyway, they’re for show. They go with the Tau’ri outfits. As far as an actual weapon goes—take this.” Telford tossed him a compact device of a dark metal that somehow suggested a snake.
“What is it?”
“A zat’nik’tel,” Telford said.
“One more time?”
“A zat. One shot stuns, two shots kill, three shots disintegrate.”
“Seriously?” Volker said, making a face.
“Propose a mechanism for that,” Rush said, examining the cuff of his uniform. “If you can.”
“Just try to resist shooting Rush.” Telford said darkly. “It might sound fun, but it’s not worth it.”
“Your insults are so witty and well-conceived, David, sometimes I just don’t know—”
“Oh shut up for ten seconds, will you?”
Volker looked down and carefully strapped the alien sidearm to his thigh, imitating the way Telford had his secured.
“Are we going to have to shoot anyone, do you think?” he asked, trying to sound nonchalant, but unable to entirely conceal his nervousness.
“Almost certainly,” Telford replied, looking impatient. “What are you two doing? Waiting for an engraved invitation?”
Volker stepped into the inlaid circle on the floor, awkwardly tucking Dr. Jackson’s book into a broad inner pocket in his jacket. Rush casually adjusted his glasses, then sauntered over at a pace that seemed designed to irritate Telford, the assault rifle still balanced casually against his shoulder.
“You have everything you need?” Telford asked, as Rush stepped into the circle on the floor.
“Of course,” Rush said, his voice smooth and dark. “Who do you think I am? Fucking Dale?”
“Thanks,” Volker said. “That’s great. That’s just great. Let’s just remember who abducted who here.”
“It’s ‘who abducted whom, actually.” Rush said, looking intensely self-satisfied. “Consider brushing up on the grammar of your native language along with the Goa’uld.”
“You’re a jerk. Next time you make some kind of simple mistake I’m never going to let you hear the end of it.”
“You’ll be waiting a long fucking time for that one,” Rush said archly.
“I’m a patient guy,” Volker replied.
“Well I’m not. Are you two done?” Telford asked.
“Oh I suppose,” Rush purred. “For now.”
Telford hit the controls for the ring transport.
They rematerialized in near complete darkness, amidst giant containers. There was a dusky glow coming from small lights that lined the perimeter of the ceiling, made diffuse by a fragrant dust in the air.
It smelled both familiar and foreign, like inhaling an aerosolized, alien alternative to anise.
Already, he felt the urge to cough.
“Oh bloody fantastic,” Rush muttered, his head angled toward the lights.
Telford stepped off the platform, ducking down behind a large container. Rush shoved Volker after him, and they joined Telford, dropping into a crouch. Near the floor, the air seemed slightly cleaner. Slowly, Volker’s eyes began to adjust to the low light.
Telford pulled out a small device, which he studied intently. “Looks like Kiva’s intel was good,” he whispered. “Night shift is on—there are only a few people in the facility. This room is clear.”
“We need to abort,” Rush hissed, his tone edgy. “Modified X-302s aren’t the only thing being manufactured here.”
“You worried about the dust?” Telford asked softly. “We’ll be fine.”
“Oh yes. You’ve convinced me with your baseless fucking assertion.” The words were clearly meant to be delivered in a dry, sarcastic manner, but there was an undertone of unease that brought a sympathetic chill to Volker’s bones.
Telford heard it too. He looked over at Rush, the movement sharp in the darkness. “You think it’s affecting you?”
“I know it’s affecting me, David, you should fucking well realize—“
“Hey,” Telford said, his tone deliberately soothing. He raised a hand, palm out. “I do,” he whispered. “Okay? I know. This won’t take long,” he whispered. “You can do it. And, if everything goes well, you can set this shit on fire on our way out. The whole place. I’ll even help you.”
“All right.” Rush sighed, readjusting his glasses. “All right.”
Telford looked back down at his device.
“What is this stuff?” Volker whispered to Rush, pointing up at the ceiling, where the small lights illuminated the dust in the air.
“Either it’s kassa-derived, or it comes from another varietal of a psychotropic grain product. Nothing you want to inhale for any length of time.” Rush’s profile was mostly lost against the darkness in the shadow of the crates, but from the way the edges of his hair caught the light, Volker could tell that he was looking up at the lazy swirl of tiny air currents near the ceiling. They seemed to shimmer, splitting the light into a range of muted, swirling pastels.
Volker tried to tear his eyes away from the shifting patterns, but found it was difficult. “Why would it be affecting you but not—”
“Drop it.” Telford said shortly, not looking up from his device.
The light really was very pretty.
“All right,” Telford said, standing. “Let’s move out.” He started to get to his feet and then stopped, dropping back, looking at Volker. “What are you looking at?” He sounded perplexed.
“The light,” Volker whispered. “There’s something weird about it—it—”
In his peripheral vision, he sensed more than saw Telford cock his head, looking up at the patterns that formed and fractured and reformed, riding the dust as their medium.
“Right,” Telford said. “That’s enough.”
Volker felt Telford’s hand close around his arm, and he was pulled to his feet and shoved in the direction of the door. He braced himself against a storage container, looking back to see Telford pulling Rush to his feet. The sound of fingers on fabric, of boots on the floor, erupted in fading flares of purple and gold.
He blinked and shook his head, but the inappropriate colors persisted. He forced himself through the darkness toward the door, every sound flaring visually as it propagated through the air.
Telford entered a code and the door slid open, sending a fantastic array of reddish orange into the darkness.
They stepped out into cleaner air. Telford led them down a few paces to duck into an alcove occupied by a headless statue, manhandling Rush into the small space.
“How affected are you?” Telford whispered, his entire attention focused on the mathematician, the low tones of his voice triggering colored waves that seemed to spread out through the air.
Volker shook his head. He was pretty sure that words did not usually have colors. It was the kassa dust. It had to be. Rush had a faraway look on his face. His head was held at a slight angle, as though he were listening to something.
Telford backed Rush against the curved wall of the alcove. He pulled off the man’s glasses and handed them to Volker, who was too distracted to do anything but take them. Telford looked critically at Rush’s eyes.
“Rush,” Telford said, his voice low and intent. “How affected are you?”
“Not very,” Rush whispered back, his words a fading, multi-hued haze. “Would you mind terribly if I asked you to back the fuck off?”
“Look at me, damn it. Or can’t you even follow simple instructions?”
“There’s a difference between ability and inclination, David,” Rush hissed, using the wall for leverage as he successfully shoved Telford back.
He held out his hand to Volker without looking at him, and Volker set his glasses carefully on his palm, because it seemed like the thing to do. Rush slid them back into place.
Telford recovered his balance and looked at Rush in irritation. “Are you hearing things?” Telford demanded. “Seeing things?”
“Mmm,” Rush said with an equivocal hand gesture. “Not exactly,” he whispered back, “just a bit of cross-sensory bleedover in the face of what should be unimodal perceptive input.”
“Me too,” Volker said earnestly. “Kassa dust. Good for parties, not so good for secret missions.”
Rush and Telford both stared at him with nearly identical expressions of mildly affronted astonishment.
“Pull yourselves together. Both of you,” Telford snapped.
“I’m perfectly fucking focused, thank you,” Rush hissed. “And he’s always like that.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Volker hissed right back.
“No more talking,” Telford said, his eyes flicking between the device in his hand and the empty, dimly lit corridor.
The air was shadowed and thick with color; the lines of the walls were indistinct. Threatening.
They moved along the empty golden hallways of one of the foremost research facilities of one of the most powerful houses of the Lucian Alliance, Telford pausing intermittently to disable security systems with codes that had, presumably, been supplied to him by Kiva. As they proceeded, Volker tried to copy Telford's stance, the way his hands closed around his zat, the restless shifting of his eyes.
It would have been easier without the kaleidoscopic cast his vision had acquired.
Rush, on the other hand, made zero effort to move with any kind of circumspection. His stride was casual as he paced though the nebulous pool of color generated by the distinct sounds of six separate feet hitting the ground. His stance, his expression, his posture, were open and unconcerned. As if he thought no one could touch him. Or, maybe, as if he didn’t care if they did.
It made Volker nervous just watching him.
They stopped at an intersection of four corridors.
“Do what I do,” Telford mouthed, pocketing his life-signs detector. “And stay behind me. Both of you.”
Volker nodded, absently wiping his left palm on the pants of his borrowed uniform.
The air was a colorless silence.
Rush gave a nonchalant half-shrug, pulling out his zat. He pressed a button and it uncoiled in his hand with a soft, blue-green hiss.
Telford pointed at Rush, his gaze furious and intent, his jaw clenched. He formed his hand into a blade and swept it through the air.
Rush winked at him.
Telford exhaled, long and slow through his nose, looking up at the ceiling, and then turned sharply, both hands closed around his zat. He looked at Volker.
Volker nodded at him.
In a graceful flow, Telford rounded the corner, bringing his zat up to shoulder level as he hit the button that opened it with a serpentine unfolding. Volker had already started to copy his motion when he realized Telford was firing.
Into a group of people.
The electrical sound of his zat disrupted Volker’s vision in fantastic waves of red and gold.
Telford moved forward a few steps, giving Volker enough space to advance along the wall behind him.
Through a haze of colored sound, Volker took aim and fired at a man who had a weapon at his shoulder. He’d been sitting at a console—probably analyzing something, looking at some kind of data—oh god. Volker watched him go down and tried to find a second target, only to realize that he already had one bearing down on him—someone coming from his peripheral vision, who was already so close—
Rush launched himself at the Second House operative, intercepting the the man and managing to take him to the floor by virtue of the butt of his rifle and an intense application of magenta-colored momentum.
Volker watched them crash to the floor, too tangled for any attempt at a clear shot before he turned his attention to the rest of the room, trying to help cover Telford as the man advanced against a roomful of opponents in a rainbow of sound. Some sixth sense allowed Volker to duck out of the way of an energy blast that singed its way past him and dissipated in a hot blue-white flash along the gold detailing of the wall behind him.
In his peripheral vision, he saw Rush land a solid punch against the dark-haired, leather-clad member of the Second House who had him half-pinned to the floor.
Telford was advancing, mercilessly advancing, his eyes fixed on one man, on one console—
In a clear airspace, where the colors of the weapons fire seemed to destructively interfere to the point that he could get a good shot—Volker fired, taking down Telford’s target.
He saw the tension go out of Telford’s shoulders. The other man gave Volker a short nod and a half smile before disabling another member of the Second House security force with an electrical discharge from his zat.
Volker and Telford scanned the room, back to back, only to find that the last conscious member of the Second House security force on top of Rush, breathing heavily, a plasma weapon pressed to the mathematician’s jawline.
“Shak’na kree,” the other man growled.
“Shal’nok, asshole,” Rush hissed. “You’ll have to fucking shoot me.”
“Wait—” Telford said urgently. “Wait.”
The man looked up at Telford and froze.
Telford’s eyes widened.
“David?” the LA member hissed, shaking wavy hair out of his eyes.
“Everett?” Telford said, obviously astonished.
“Enchanted, I’m sure,” Rush said, his eyes fixed on the man pinning him to the floor. The last time Volker had seen that expression on the mathematician’s face had been when he was examining the dataset from the radio telescope array. He looked fascinated. And—relieved?
“What are you—” the Second House operative broke off his question as Telford raised a hand and shook his head, firmly. One time. The room fell silent.
“So,” Rush said, the word a smooth pull in the uncomfortable quiet. “You two know each other? How fortunate. I can’t imagine where you could have met.” His voice was a cascade of dark blue in the cold light of the security station.
Volker had to remind himself to stay focused.
“That’s enough,” Telford snapped.
“Everett,” Rush said, the word a slow roll, thickly accented, breaking off with a snap on the final ‘t’ despite the way the plasma weapon was forcing his head back. “What an—unusual name,” Rush breathed. “In this part of the galaxy.”
The stranger’s eyes swept over Volker, Rush and Telford. “If you mispronounce it,” the other man growled, grinding the weapon against the mathematician’s jaw.
“You don’t happen to have a surname, do you? Everett?” Rush managed to keep that blue silk in his voice.
“Nice try,” the man growled. “And nice uniform. He reached down with one hand to trace the faint lines where some kind of insignia patch had been torn away. “But you’re going to need better intel if you want to pose as Tau’ri, you classless son of a bitch.”
“Did you just call me ‘classless,’ my love?” Rush breathed. “That hurts.”
Telford stepped forward. Volker flanked him.
“Back off,” the Second House operative said quietly. “Or I kill this lunatic.”
“Oh, would you?” Rush asked breathily. “It would solve a lot of problems.”
The Second House operative shot Rush a perplexed look, then glanced up at Telford. Something seemed to pass silently between them.
“Let him up,” Telford said quietly. “And drop your weapon.”
The other man clenched his jaw.
Volker kept his face impassive.
“For old times sake?” Telford asked, cocking his head, lifting his brows. “Otherwise, I’m going to have to kill you. I’d—rather not do that.”
The Second House operative shot Volker and Telford another appraising look. He levered himself up, freeing Rush. He backed away a few paces and dropped his weapon to the floor, where it clattered in a haze of color.
“Go,” Telford said, his eyes flicking to Rush over the barrel of his zat. “Do your thing.”
“Oh no,” Rush said, casually coming to one elbow, making no move to leave the floor, crossing his feet at the ankles. “I’m quite interested in how this plays out, actually,”
“Are you hurt?” Telford asked him.
“Not physically. He did call me classless, though.”
The man from the Second House looked down at Rush, his expression split between amusement and hostility.
Rush shook his hair back and gave the man a small wave.
Volker tried to keep his face neutral. This was turning weird, even by Rush’s own standards. Could he get up? Was the kassa dust affecting him beyond the synesthetic cross-sensory bleed over that Volker was experiencing? It seemed likely.
“You really know how to pick ‘em,” the man said, looking at Telford.
“Get up,” Telford snapped at Rush, his voice dark and dangerous.
Slowly, languidly, Rush got to his feet, his eyes never leaving the Second House operative. He stepped straight up to the man, getting way, way too close, coming right into the guy’s personal space. Within inches. Volker had never seen Rush voluntarily get that close to anyone.
“Are you of the Second House, Everett?” he asked, his voice still a slide of blue-silk in the kassa dust air. “Or are you, possibly, of the United States Air Force?”
Everett watched Rush with an increasingly uncertain expression.
“Get out of here,” Telford hissed, dragging Rush back by the collar, pulling him out of the other man’s face. “You crazy fuck.” He shoved him in Volker’s direction.
“What’s your surname?” Rush demanded, looking at the Second House operative. He approached again, and was shoved back by Telford, again. “Tell me your surname.”
“I don’t have one, asshole. I’m Vrett. Second House. Who the hell are you?”
“He’s your worst nightmare.” Telford’s tone was pure ice. “Not another word. Not from either of you.” Telford shot Rush a murderous glare. “You. Go. Do what we came here to do.”
“And if I don’t?” Rush asked, his voice low.
“If you don’t, if you say even so much as one more word aloud, I execute ’Vrett’ right here in this hallway.”
A colorless silence descended.
Rush stared at Telford with more naked hatred that Volker had ever seen on a human face. Everett’s eyes flicked between Telford and Rush, his expression a neutral mask.
“Go,” Telford hissed, pointing at the door on the other side of the security station. “Now.”
Rush didn’t move.
“Come on,” Volker whispered, his hand closing around Rush’s upper arm, dragging him toward the next room, away from the confrontation between Telford and Vrett, or whoever he was. He pulled Rush through the door, which swished open with a faint tinge of purple as Volker slammed his hand down on the controls.
The room they found themselves in was huge—cavernous even, with husks of ships in various stages of construction suspended from the ceiling in skeletal relief.
“Fuck,” Rush hissed, as the door slid shut. He bent over, bracing his hands against his knees, as though he were lightheaded. “Fuck. That was him. That was him.”
“That was who? Why ‘fuck’?” Volker asked, his eyes scanning the dark recesses of the room, the hanging shells of ships. “Thank god that guy didn’t shoot you, you complete weirdo.”
“Fuck because,” Rush paused, his face entirely bloodless. “Because I’ll bet he’s from Earth. From Earth.”
“Are you okay?” Volker asked, watching Rush hyperventilate.
“I shouldn’t have let him go. I shouldn’t have let Telford outmaneuver me,” Rush hissed through clenched teeth.
“Take some deep breaths, buddy,” Volker said. Through the thick glass of the small window he could just make out the blurred outlines of Telford and the other man, talking over the barrel of Telford’s weapon.
“Everett?” Rush hissed, “Everett? You saw his face. He was fucking shocked. They know each other. They know each other well.”
“But nothing. David never said our names. Did you notice that? And when it looked like I might say mine, he threatened to shoot the man. Fucking think about this critically for two seconds, Dale. Everett’s from Earth. He must be. Probably Stargate Command. He’s probably an operative. A high-level one if he knows Colonel Telford.”
“Does that really matter?”
“I need to talk to him,” Rush said, his breathing shallow. “I don’t think they know—I don’t think they know what happened to me. To you. They don’t fucking know. I don’t think David has told them—I don’t—” Rush broke off, sinking to his knees, his hands buried in his hair.
Volker tried not to descend into sympathetic panic. If he couldn’t talk Rush down—well, he didn’t have any idea how to light a room of this size on fire, among other problems.
“You think Telford isn’t really working for the SGC?” he asked, doing a terrible job at keeping his voice calm. “You think he hasn’t told them about you? About the nine chevron address? I thought this was a deep cover mission. I thought he was—”
“Well, if a deep cover mission has no fucking bottom,” Rush hissed, “and no fucking end, then is it a deep cover mission? Or is it a fucking defection?”
“Oh god,” Volker said. “Have you ever talked to anyone from Stargate Command?”
“No,” Rush said, looking up at him, his eyes wild and wet. “I was recruited by the Alliance. The Alliance. Do you understand?”
Volker tired to get a hold of himself, tried to think of something. “If this Everett guy is with the SGC,” he said, “if they know each other—Telford won’t kill him. Probably.”
“Probably not,” Rush whispered. “Not a given, but probably not.”
“Which means, if Telford lets him live, he’ll report back. Can we somehow symbolically—”
“Not a bad idea.” Rush looked up, detangling his hands from his hair, clearly hopeful.
“Something he’ll recognize,” Volker murmured. “Something that will mean something to the SGC. Something associated with you. Why were they trying to recruit you?”
“A nonogon?” Rush whispered. “For the cyphers?”
“That would do it,” Volker replied. “But how do we construct it?”
“With fire,” Rush said. “With fire.”
“The room is square.”
“I have line,” Rush snapped, his eyes flicking toward the doorway. “But time is limited.”
“All right then.” Volker reached down and helped the man to his feet.
Together, they sprinted to what appeared to be the approximate center of the room. Rush pulled a ball of thin line out of his pocket, along with five small blocks of deformable material, which he pulled into halves before handing them to Volker. “C4,” he said, shortly.
“Oh. Explosives. Cool. Uh, how good are you at estimating arc lengths?” Volker asked.
“Better than you,” Rush replied, his fingers closing loosely around the ball that he’d removed from his pocket. “You run the perimeter. I’ll tell you where to plant the blocks for even spacing.”
Volker took off at a sprint toward the far wall. When he’d reached it, he felt the line go taught as Rush stopped the unraveling of the ball. Volker planted a block of explosive on the floor and started walking clockwise, at a rapid clip.
“Now,” Rush called across the space that separated them, his voice as low as he could make it and still have it carry across the cavernous room. Volker dropped to one knee and pressed a deformable explosive against the floor, then he was up and walking again.
“Now,” Rush hissed again, jerking subtly on the line.
They continued in this way until all nine blocks had been laid out along the floor at intervals that approximated a nonogon—that suggested the chevron arrangement of the gate.
Volker jogged back toward Rush, beginning to loop the line over his arm in loose circles as he did so. He passed beneath beneath the skeletal ships, his footfalls a faint and fading haze of color on the metal.
Hopefully the kassa dust was coming out of his system. The air in this room seemed clean.
Rush met him halfway, shoving the hastily re-rolled ball of line into Volker’s hands. “This is the fuse,” he hissed. “Run it along the perimeter. Link the blocks up. As if it were an actual fucking gate, please? Hopefully, my cosmically assigned significant other will document the damage and a fucking overpaid analyst from Homeworld Command will be paying attention. They’d have to be too stupid for words to miss this.”
“Your—cosmically assigned significant other?” Volker asked, confused.
“Volker. Please. We don’t exactly have unlimited time. Try to focus on the salient.” He pulled a small flask out of his pocket and inverted it. Then he turned away, stalking toward the nearest skeletal ship.
“You try to focus on the salient,” Volker muttered. Already out of breath, he ran the perimeter of the room laying down line, while Rush doused the equipment he could reach with his mystery liquid, presumably something flammable.
When the room was wired, when the air smelled of hydrocarbons, they met back in front of the door.
Rush pulled out a silver lighter, did a complicated spin-flip-spin maneuver with it, and flicked the little flame to life. He watched it flare up and settle before kneeling to touch it to one end of the fuse, where it began its slow burn away from them, across the vast darkness of the floor. He spun the lighter closed and repocketed it.
“Open the door,” Rush said smoothly.
Volker hit the door controls. They didn’t respond. He hit them again. They still didn’t respond.
“Hmm,” Rush said. “Curious.”
Volker hit them a third time, feeling a band of tension around his chest. Still no response.
“You want to—” Volker motioned in the direction of the door controls, stepping back.
“No,” Rush said, his tone wistful as he watched the burning progress of the fuse. “Not particularly.”
“No?” Volker echoed.
“This is a skill set you really should have,” Rush murmured, leaning against the wall, his arms crossed.
Volker watched in astonishment as the fuse continued to burn toward its target of deformable explosive. It was far away. The room was large—but still—still.
Just when he’d been sure that he and Rush were developing some kind of common ground—
“Rush,” he hissed.
“You’re wasting time,” Rush replied.
“I—“ Volker began, trying to think about anything other than the inexorable progression of the little flame that seemed to sear its way into his peripheral vision.
“This is not a promising start.” Rush indolently brought his hands up to cover his ears.
With an explosion that echoed deafeningly in the cavernous hangar, the first small block of C4 detonated in shower of metal paneling. Volker lost his balance and steadied himself on the wall, his vision tinged diffusely with red, his ears ringing.The accelerant nearest the explosion caught fire. The flames began to spread.
“Try to think critically,” Rush advised, watching the burning wreckage.
“You are crazy,” Volker breathed. “The last block is only twenty feet from us.”
“I’d also advise thinking quickly,” Rush added.
“Rush. Stop being an asshole. Get us out of here.”
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to do that,” Rush said with a faint smile. “I find I don’t feel particularly inclined to make the effort. I suspect our symbology won’t go over their heads if it’s accompanied by our corpses. The’ll be able to identify us by our DNA.”
“Did you know that DNA is an aperiodic crystal?” Rush asked, idly, still staring at the flames. “I adore that. I wonder if I could learn to hear it.”
Volker—ears ringing, thoughts racing, borderline hyperventilating—searched his mind for something—anything he’d learned that might help him.
Phi. The Golden Ratio. The mathematical ostentation that Rush had mentioned.
He looked at the keypad.
“I haven’t memorized all the numbers yet, Rush,” he whispered, his voice cracking.
“Fair enough,” Rush replied, tearing his eyes away from the fire. “And what would you like to type in?”
“A good thought,” Rush said. “I doubt it will work here, as this facility isn’t Goa’uld in origin, but, worth trying, all the same.” He rapidly typed in the number sequence, only to have the door reject him.
Behind them, another small block of explosive went up in a colored haze of heat and light. The accelerant seeping along the floor had started to burn.
“Hmm,” Rush said, shaking his hair back.
“I hate you,” Volker whispered, his voice cracking.
“Scintillating,” Rush said with a half-smile, looking out at the rapidly progressing conflagration that was beginning to consume the hangar. “But that doesn’t get you out of here, does it?”
“What the hell are you trying to prove?” Volker hissed. “That you’re not afraid? That you’re tough? That you’re a pathetic excuse for a human being?”
“I’m not trying to prove anything,” Rush said flatly, turning back to the fire. “You need experience with real stakes.”
“So, if I can’t do this—you’ll step in, right?”
“It’s unlikely.” Rush leaned back against the wall, arms crossed, watching the flames.
“If I can’t do this, you’re going to just stand here and let us both burn to death?” Volker shouted at him.
“That’s my current plan, yes,” Rush said quietly. “I said ‘real stakes,’ Volker. And that’s exactly what I meant.”
Volker took a deep breath.
Behind him, another small block of C4 added its contribution to the flames.
He could feel the blood roaring in his ears.
“Ask yourself what just happened,” Rush said, his tone conversational, almost friendly. “Why would the door now be locked?”
Why. Why when it hadn’t been before—when—
If the door was sealed—soon they would run out of oxygen. Bad from a survival standpoint, good from a fire-containment standpoint.
“A safety protocol,” Volker said, speaking through a haze of panic. “It must be a containment protocol of some kind.”
“That’s likely,” Rush replied, the red gold of the flames shining in the frames of his glasses. “Triggered by what, do you think?”
“Maybe heat.” Volker felt sweat begin to trickle down his spine. “Maybe a chemical compound. Maybe increased turbidity in the air. Maybe a drop in atmospheric oxygen.”
“Detected where?” Rush asked, shutting his eyes and covering his ears just before another fragment of C4 went up.
“Anywhere. God. I don’t know,” Volker shouted. “It could be anywhere. It doesn’t matter—wherever the sensor is? It’s routed to this door.”
“Mmm,” Rush said, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and looking at them speculatively.
Already, Volker was running his fingers along the edges of the panel that housed the keys for the door control. He had to get inside this thing, somehow. He had to look at it. He had to see its circuits. There. He had it. With a wrench that tore one of his nails, the panel came away under his hand and he was searching, searching, searching, his eyes roving restlessly around the perimeter of the nested circuits, around the crystals—
He wiped the sweat out of his eyes.
“Green are capacitor-equivalents,” Rush said languidly, looking over his shoulder. “Blue are diodes, red are resistors, though, depending on their size and quantum configuration they may double as processors. All of them are stolen. Repurposed by the Goa’uld and the Lucian Alliance and the Tau’ri and a thousand other races, most likely. Cigarette? These are hard come by. I keep them on hand for special occasions.”
“Rush,” Telford shouted, his voice muted as he banged on the other side of the door. “Rush.”
Rush shrugged at Telford, and cocked his head, tapping one ear.
“God damn it,” Telford shouted. His fist impacted the window, and then he was gone.
The room was turning extremely hot. Volker’s eyes were burning with sweat and with the acrid sting of the smoke.
Rush pulled his lighter out of his jacket, flipped the thing through his fingers a few times, and then lit his cigarette.
Across the hangar, another deformable block of C4 ignited, blasting them with a wave of hot air.
Volker narrowed his eyes, his fingers slowly tracing the rim of the opening he’d made in the door controls, looking for an input of any kind. Looking for the place where the sensor interfaced with the door controls. Where it must interface.
Finally, he found it, his fingers rubbing faintly over two tiny incoming wires.
Without stopping to question himself, he dug his nails beneath them and pulled them free.
He began to cough.
Rush pushed away from the wall and looked over his shoulder. “Good,” he said, surprised. “Power supply,” he said, coughing, as he pointed to one component of the circuit. “Electronic strike,” he said, pointing to another component several centimeters away. “Cut the wire, then use it to bridge them to—” he broke off, nearly doubled over coughing. “Short out the locking mechanism.” He took another drag of his cigarette.
Volker yanked one of the delicate wires free of the panel and bent it slightly.
He couldn’t stop coughing. It felt like there was no oxygen in the air. Maybe because there wasn’t.
He anchored the wire once by twisting it around the electronic strike mechanism.
His eyes were streaming.
He knocked it into position. And, with a small, barely audible snap, the door came open. Immediately, Rush started to pry it away from the frame. Volker stepped into help him.
The cool air from the corridor eased the ache in Volker’s lungs.
Incredibly, once the doors had been levered open, Rush went back into the burning room.
Volker trailed behind him, unwilling to pass the forced-open door, possessed by a wild fear that the mathematician was going to seal himself inside.
But Rush simply stood, watching the progress of the burning line, then turned to rip the crystals out of the exposed door circuitry.
He pocketed them, nodding shortly at Volker.
Volker turned on his heel and made his way back to the security station where Telford was standing, on the other side of a bank of monitors. Probably, he’d been trying to open the door remotely. Like a normal person. Volker bent over and pulled in one deep shuddering breath, and then another, his hands on his knees.
“Nicely done,” Rush said, one hand on the wall. He took a drag of his cigarette.
Volker straightened up, curled his hand into a fist, stepped forward, and drove it straight into Rush’s jaw, knocking the man to the floor.
It was hysterical and helpless and unhinged. One hand coming to his temple, the other languidly holding that damned cigarette, like Volker decking him was the most hilarious thing the universe could possibly have come up with.
Before Volker could hit him again, Telford hauled him back, dragging him away from Rush, shoving him toward the corridor. “Go,” he said. “I don’t care what he did, just go.”
And alarm began to sound throughout the facility, an echoing, alien tone.
Telford pulled Rush off the floor, ripped the cigarette out of his hand crushed the thing beneath his boot. Together, the three of them sprinted back toward the transport room, toward the cloying air, full of kassa that was only marginally better than smoke, not talking, not slowing, until they stood within the confines of the ring transport platform they’d beamed in on.
Volker’s lungs ached. His hands were braced against his knees.
Telford was about to remotely activate their rings when Rush broke the silence.
“Don’t,” he said, his voice hoarse and breathless, still with that unhinged edge to it. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a book of matches.
In the cloying, kassa-filled air, he struck one, the sound a whole spectrum of color. He flicked it in a flaming arc through the dust filled darkness, where it landed atop one of the open bins. It blazed up brightly as the rings descended.